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This study aims to give insight into the meaning young educated people in Syria give to the Internet and new media as a means to gain social, political and religious agency, and the influence this has on existing social structures in a traditional and authoritarian state like Syria.
The Internet has enabled entirely new forms of social interaction, activities, and organizing. Especially social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Blogger have opened new ways of communication over the last couple of years. As global Internet access is growing, the effects of the Internet have also spread to the Middle East, and its influence on restrictive socio-political entities is often mentioned in the press. One may think of news headlines like “Iran Protests: Twitter, the Medium of the Movement” (Time Magazine  ), “In Egypt, Pushing Revolution by Internetâ€Ž” (Newsweek  ) or the frequently mentioned influence of Internet on changing social and religious patterns (e.g. Ambrust 2000). Unfortunately, academic knowledge to back up these claims is very limited.
In a country like Syria, Internet was virtually non-existent less than ten years ago. Today however, a fast growing group  of people has access to the global network and many shops, mosques and political movements have created a space on-line. All these developments seem to have a big impact in a traditional and authoritarian society. But how can Internet and new media influence the agency of people?
Why Syria ?
Syria is a traditional society with an authoritarian government where gaining agency is highly channeled through religious and social traditions or membership of the ruling Ba’ath party. However, as the country’s age demographic is changing (the majority of the people is under the age of thirty  ) and globalization has brought new ideas inside its borders, the younger generation seems to search for more direct ways to gain agency.
At the same time, Internet usage is on the rise and recent figures  indicate that social networking sites are attracting an increasing community of (young) Syrians who use these media to interact with friends, exchange ideas and form digital communities. There are also examples of young Syrians using the Internet to gain agency. Syrian Facebook users recently organized a successful campaign to boycott mobile telephone providers in protest against high tariffs (Sharif 2009) and a simple search brings up a plethora of on-line Syrian communities, ranging from religious discussion groups to calls for educational reform. Nevertheless, recent initiatives calling for mass protests against the government were less successful  .
Despite these developments, Reporters Without Borders ranked Syria among the thirteen enemies of the Internet  , a conclusion based on the persistent monitoring of “Internet dissidents” by the state and the blocking of websites. However, in the wake of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the Syrian government recently (February 2011) made a remarkable step by opening up the Internet and dismantling blockades on websites like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube  .
With an ever growing Internet community and the legalization of access to social networking websites, it seems likely that the role of the Internet and new media as a means to gain agency will increase over the next couple of years.
Research questions (preliminary)
The main question I would like to pose in this study is:”What meaning do young, educated people in Syria give to the Internet and new media as a means to gain agency and change existing structures?”
To answer the main research question, it is important to first answer a couple of sub-questions. By tackling these questions, I will increase my insight into the subject as the research progresses.
How do young, educated people in Syria use the Internet and new media?
How do young, educated people in Syria believe that their use of the Internet and new media influences their social values, societal participation and world view?
What is the position of the Internet and new media in current social, political and religious structures in relation to young, educated people in Syria?
How are existing structural forces in Syria (e.g. religious, political, traditional entities) acting and adapting to the use of Internet and New Media use?
This study will have a social-anthropological focus. While using statistical data where possible, the research methods that will be used will mainly be qualitative: individual interviews, participant observation and focus group discussions. By investigating the (perception of) influence as experienced by people themselves, it will be possible to draw a picture of the way Internet and new-media influence their agency and the existing structures. I will also conduct research through on-line participant observation on Syrian social-network sites and by following the activities of other new media. Furthermore, I will investigate how (religious, social and governmental) structural forces (re)act towards the use of Internet and new Media by investigating policies, publications and activities.
Before the start of my fieldwork period (1 year), I will start with an extensive literature research on the subject. During the fieldwork period, I will gain access to the target group through my personal network of people, which I have built-up over the last couple of years (see also: personal information).
Theories and concepts (preliminary)
Central to this study are the concepts of structure and agency. Agency refers to the ability of people to act independently, have control over their life and make free choices. Structure, by contrast, refers to the pattern or framework of relationships between social institutions such as political systems, religion, class, customs and moral norms, which influence or limit the choices and opportunities that individuals possess. In applying these concepts, I will follow Anthony Giddens’ Structuration theory (1986).
The Structuration theory holds that all human action happens within the framework of an existing social structure which is controlled by a set of norms and laws. Therefore, human actions are at least partly predetermined based on the contextual rules under which they occur. However, structures are not definite and external, but sustained and modified by human actions. Therefore, in and through their activities (agency), people reproduce and transform the conditions (structures) that make these activities possible. Besides Giddens, this study will also build on publications by some of his contemporaries who have published on the subject, like Bourdieu (1977) , Berger & Luckman (1966) and Orilowski (1992, 2000), who have published on the duality of structure to technology.
Furthermore, I will also use sources from the realm of (new) media studies for the conceptual and theoretical framework of this study. Manual Castells has been one of the most significant social theorist of new media in the last two decades. In his Information Age trilogy (1996, 1998, 2000), Castells argues that the development of communication network structures and architectures is a core feature of the contemporary social condition. These networks are not controlled by anyone but extend outward from computing and information & communication technologies to all forms of social, economic and cultural relations. In Critique of Information (2002) the sociologist and critical theorist Scott Lash, builds forth on Castells and argues that the rise of the global information order is marked by a fundamental blurring of the distinction between culture and technology. This means that in order to influence relations of power, inequality and domination within a technological and informational culture, one must become part of the networks and flows of this informational culture.
In their work on Internet use in Trinidad, Miller and Slater (2001) come to a rejection of Internet research that ‘focuses on the way in which new media seems to constitute spaces or places apart from the rest of social life (“real life” or offline life)’. Internet (and new-media) are rather spaces within social life in which new forms of sociality and new identities are emerging. Internet and new media should thus be seen as extensions of the social space rather than tools within the social space. Poster (2001) summarizes this as follows, ‘the Internet is more like a social space than a thing, so that its effects are more like those of Germany than those of hammers’. In conjunction with Miller and Slater, Jenkins (2006) argues that the frame of reference for individuals who are “connected”, is not the same as for those who are not. Connected people judge their social environment according to different standards, sourcing from norms, values and beliefs that not always match with the social practices they are subject to in ‘real’ life.
In relation to the research topic, we can say that instead of being an instrument to gain agency, Internet and new media may function as a place, within social space, that is out of reach for the structures that normally define it. That is, unless these structural forces will also embrace new media and the Internet. This “place within social space” creates a new social reference frame and a platform for sharing thoughts, beliefs and ideas which may contribute to the increase of an individual’s agency in society.
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